What Is Skin Lightening Cream?

Cosmetic products designed to lighten skin color

Skin lightening creams, also known as skin brightening creams, are designed to lighten skin color. They work by decreasing the skin's level of melanin, which is a pigment produced by skin cells and determines how light or dark our skin appears. These products can be used as spot treatment or for a lighter complexion overall. However, many skin lightening creams have been found to have dangerous side effects and are not approved for use by the U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA).

Taking care of her skin

 NickyLloyd / Getty Images

 What Are Skin Lightening Creams?

Skin lightening creams cover a broad range of products designed to bleach and lighten the skin. They do this by targeting the cells that produce melanin. The creams can be used all over the face for a lighter complexion or to spot-treat areas of the skin, such as age spots or acne scars. While several varieties are available online and over the counter (OTC), it’s best to talk with your health care provider before using skin lightening creams. Prescription products are regularly tested for safety and efficacy, unlike OTC products, which could contain dangerous ingredients. 

How Skin Lightening Cream Works

Skin lightening creams contain ingredients that work to decrease your body’s production of melanin. Melanin is responsible for the pigment in your skin and is made by cells called melanocytes. Bleaching products work by lowering the number of melanocytes in your skin. 

Most skin lightening creams contain hydroquinone, which is known to decrease melanocytes. Vitamin C, also a common ingredient in skin lightening creams, is an antioxidant that is known to lower melanin production in our cells. Glycolic acid, which is also found in many skin brightening creams, works as an exfoliant and helps to brighten the skin by clearing away dead cells. 


Cosmetic Benefits

The main benefit that skin lightening creams may provide is a balanced pigmentation, even skin coloring, and reduced appearance of dark spots, freckles, and acne scars. 

Skin brightening products can come in the form of creams, lotions, oils, and serums. Skin bleaching products are also available in injectable options. If you’re planning on trying one, talk with your dermatologist about the best fit. Creams and oils are usually heavier and better for dry skin. If your skin tends to be on the oily side, opt for a lighter serum. Cosmeceuticals, cosmetic products that also provide health benefits, are a popular option for skin brightening. These products usually come in the form of a cream or serum and can be used to treat dark spots and acne scars. 

If you have noticed skin darkening or new freckles or moles over the years, you may be curious about skin lightening products. Many people have sought these creams to help reduce age spots and scars, as well as to make freckles less noticeable. 

Medical Benefits

There are several medical reasons behind dark spots or an uneven skin tone. Aging and sun damage can leave dark spots on the face. Melasma and post-inflammatory hyperpigmentation (PIH) are both conditions that cause darkening over areas of the body that are exposed to the sun more often, such as the forehead and cheeks. PIH leads to a darker complexion in areas that were inflamed because of trauma, which can include scarring or severe acne that leaves dark spots after it resolves.

Hormonal imbalances and endocrine conditions like Addison's disease can also lead to darkening of the skin. Addison's disease is when the adrenal gland doesn't produce enough of certain hormones. Those with Addison's disease produce a high level of adrenocorticotropic hormone, which stimulates the melanocytes to produce more melanin, resulting in skin darkening. People who are affected by these illnesses may use skin lightening creams to counteract the darkening effects on their skin.

Compare to Makeup

If you have walked down a makeup aisle recently or browsed a makeup website, you probably saw dozens of products claiming to "brighten" your skin. Brightening makeup products help to even skin tone and provide an overall brighter look by covering dark spots and leaving a dewy glow on the skin. Brightening makeup foundations and concealers work on the skin’s surface, but—unlike bleaching products—do not affect how much melanin the skin cells are producing. As soon as the makeup is washed off, your skin will return to its natural color. While it’s unclear how long the effects of skin lightening creams last, it's known that the more often and longer you use them, the lighter your skin will appear—but extended use carries serious risks (see below).


General Risks

Most brightening creams contain ingredients like hydroquinone, corticosteroids, and mercury. These components each come with documented health risks. Because many over-the-counter and natural skin lightening products have not been proven safe or effective, many don’t provide long-lasting results. Users may notice that their skin returns to its original color after the bleaching effect wears off. 

People who have used skin lightening creams have reported dermatitis and skin irritation. Because many of the products contain steroids, steroid acne is also a possible side effect. Some skin lightening creams can lead to skin breakdown and leave users with open sores and scarring. The redness and lesions can lead to pain that is difficult to manage. 

The ingredient hydroquinone has been linked to exogenous ochronosis, a disorder that makes the skin appear black and blue. This condition is difficult to treat and can result in permanent discoloration of the skin. 

Skin Bleaching Has Its Roots in Prejudice

A deeply negative side to skin lightening creams is that they can be used to promote or perpetuate colorism. Colorism refers to the belief that lighter skin is better and more beautiful than darker skin. Women around the globe have felt pressure to use these sometimes-dangerous products in order to avoid prejudice and gain privilege in certain cultures. 

Serious Risks

Concerns have been raised over recent years about the mercury content in some skin lightening creams. Mercury is a heavy metal that is toxic in even small amounts. The FDA has limited the amount of mercury in cosmetic products to trace amounts not exceeding 1 ppm. However, in a 2014 study, researchers tested 549 skin lightening products for their mercury content. They found that 6% contained mercury levels above 1,000 ppm, while some had mercury levels as high as 10,000 ppm. Of the U.S. products, 3.3% had mercury levels over 1,000 ppm. Though products from the United States were somewhat safer, it can be difficult to determine the origin country of products when purchasing from online retailers. 

Being exposed to mercury over time can cause symptoms like numbness, tingling, dizziness, forgetfulness, headaches, and depression. More severe symptoms include confusion, muscle weakness, trouble breathing, changes in vision, and difficulty walking. Mercury poisoning requires immediate medical attention. 

Exposure to mercury can also cause kidney damage over time. Users of skin brightening products have been diagnosed with nephrotic syndrome after using the cream for months. Nephrotic syndrome is a kidney disorder that causes the body to excrete too much protein in the urine. Symptoms of nephrotic syndrome include severe swelling and fluid retention, foamy urine, fatigue, and loss of appetite. Nephrotic syndrome is treatable, however, and will resolve once the mercury exposure stops.

The FDA has banned the sale of injectable products because they are not proven to work and carry dangerous side effects. The agency found that many of the products contain ingredients like glutathione, collagen, and human placenta. The labels don’t provide a full list of ingredients, so users are injecting unknown substances directly into their veins or muscles when they use these products. 

While it's known that the short-term risks like mercury poisoning and nephrotic syndrome are serious, it's unclear what the long-term effects of using skin-lightening products are. The chemicals in skin lightening creams have not been studied over a long period of time, so it's unknown if they will lead to chronic conditions. 

Word From Verywell

Skin lightening creams can be an option to help with any unwanted skin darkening or spots. But be realistic about how effective these products can be in brightening skin tone or reducing the appearance of dark spots. If you are curious about trying a skin lightening cream, talk with your health care provider before using any skin lightening products. You might also try natural remedies before resorting to over-the-counter solutions.

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11 Sources
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